Conservation drone strikes

Far above the rainforests of Indonesia, pilotless aircraft are keeping an eye on endangered species as they move about their natural habitats

Far above the rainforests of Indonesia, pilotless aircraft are keeping an eye on endangered species as they move about their natural habitats

Cameras whirring, remote-controlled aircraft are monitoring animal’s movements in jungle so dense it would otherwise be impossible to get an accurate fix on the number and behaviour of the creatures.

Funded by the National Geographic Society, Denver Zoo and other environmental organisations, this is a conservation drone equipped with lightweight cameras, sensors and GPS. With a wingspan shorter than the average man, it’s highly versatile. Not only is the aircraft compiling a picture of living things on its 25 minute flights, it’s also drawing up detailed maps of the often illegal deforestation of the vast area.

“The main goal of this project is to develop low-cost unmanned aerial vehicles that every conservation biologist in the tropics can use for surveying forests and biodiversity,” Zurich-based ecologist Lian Pin Koh told Environmental News earlier this year. “The drone is almost fully autonomous. It can take off and fly on autopilot.”

The great value of drones, an all-purpose word that covers a wide range of pilotless aircraft, is that they send superb images. When actor and humanitarian George Clooney wanted to shed light on the conflict in Dafur, he had to buy grainy satellite images. The images recorded by today’s drones provide almost perfect versions of what’s happening on the ground.

Technically known as UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), drones originated in the Vietnam war of the 1960s. Generally controlled autonomously by computers in the vehicle itself or under the remote direction of a navigator or pilot on the ground, their range in terms of height and speed varies enormously. While a hand-held drone may fly at low speeds over a range of as little as 2km, military UAVs can travel at Mach 5 or faster, and at heights of 50,000ft or more. Some are even sub-orbital.

The cost of drones has plummeted as the technology moves beyond the development stage and becomes more mainstream. The first drones drained the US military budget of many millions of dollars each; however, today a civilian drone can cost anything from six figures to a few hundred dollars, depending on the level of sophistication and performance.

And they’re getting better and cheaper all the time. In April, researchers at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University at Daytona Beach, Florida, and University of San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador unveiled a lightweight UAV that they say will cost $5,000 to $10,000 each. Dubbed ‘Piquero’ (Spanish for a bird native to the Galapagos Islands), it weighs a mere 55lbs and has a 12ft wing span. Piquero will be put to duty above the Pacific Ocean, monitoring the poaching of sharks and whales around the Galapagos near Ecuador.

Plans are afoot to use similar low-cost, lightweight UAVs for a host of other environmental and socially beneficial purposes. They can, for instance, be sent aloft to track the movement of oil spills, and the migration of turtles, birds and many other species.

Thus, war aside, drones are performing functions that benefit society as a whole. They’re being used right now to monitor wilful destruction of the Amazon rainforest, illegal whaling by Japanese boats in the Southern Hemisphere and even to prospect for potential oil reserves.

In the conservation battle alone, drones will save much time, money and effort. For instance, Piquero will patrol over 50,000 sq m around the Galapagos where poachers have been killing protected whales and sharks, often hundreds at a time. The area is far too large for the Ecuadorian navy or air force to monitor, and at about $2,500 a year, Piquero’s fuel bill will be almost derisory for all the tasks it can perform.